How does Swan Lake keep us coming back for more? It's a cheese-fest. Von Rothbart is a malicious owlish no-mark from the 'he's-behind-you!' school of scary. Prince Siegfried is a dreamy mummy's boy unable to fire his cross bow at the pretty swan lady, the wuss, and the courtly dances have the hackneyed feel of a 'culture night' on a school trip to Budapest. Even Tchaikovsky's magical score, which can soar with heart-stopping transcendent melody, also slips at times into oom-pa-pa dirge. Those pesky court dances again.
In last night's opening of American Ballet Theater's version of the old warhorse, matters were further hampered by Zack Brown's costume designs which had the gawdy feel of a Disney Paris's Main Street party. Electric blue, bright purple and scarlet fail in fussy bustled dresses to suggest anything other than a five-year-old's colouring book. Yet Brown's sets, for a touring piece, had the weight and heft of a more permanent production, suggesting grandeur through scale. Though the attempted transcendence of Odette and Siegried's reunion in death, as the couple were magically reunited in the heart of a rising sun, was let down by a creased backdrop that could have done with a jolly good iron.
And yet, and yet... the moment Siegried (David Hallberg) was padding through the forest to the lake's edge - as scary with this cross bow as a toddler with a stick - Odette (Michele Wiles) appears in full flight swan mode among the craggy trees and dry ice - I was holding my breath. The cheese had turned to liquid gold in a way that special alchemical way only classical ballet seems to manage. Wiles's limpid arms, graceful in their wing-like action as a pair of sinuous snakes jutting from her shoulders; her poised legato balances, for in that magical realm she inhabits all the clocks have somehow stopped; her vulnerability and thwarted strength were conjured with limpid precision. We'd left Disney far behind and had awoken, where exactly? It felt like heaven.
American Ballet Theater's Swan Lake turns up the volume on all the signifiers of the chocolate box, yet somehow knows that you can't break this galumphing warhorse no matter how gawdy your painted sunsets. There is a confidence and thrust in their dancing that makes some European classical companies look plodding. From Von Rothbart's (Marcelo Gomes) audacious seduction of international princesses, like a playboy on Viagra, to the military precision of the corps de ballet's swan drills, we were in the hands of a superb company who knows to its very toes that even the stinkiest cheese can taste sublime.